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Continuity: Mohsen Mostafavi

Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design Mohsen Mostafavi uses student style as a window into how the relationship between architecture and fashion can be applied to contemporary trends.


Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design Mohsen Mostafavi uses student style as a window into how the relationship between architecture and fashion can be applied to contemporary trends.

Architectural and urban historian and Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design Mohsen Mostafavi applies lessons from the layered and dense relationship between architecture and fashion to contemporary trends, using student style as a window into the most immediate and visible manifestation of these forms of expression.

ARQ: Outline for us the relationship between fashion and architecture in your mind.

Mohsen: There’s a lot of connections between fashion and architecture. Part of the history of this connection goes back to the 19th century where architecture became very fascinated with the concept of style. There was a moment when there were a lot of discussions about the idea of the crisis of styles, because architecture, having gone through supposed periods of clarity in terms of in what style we should build, then was opened up to the possibility that we could build in many styles—gothic, classic and so on and so forth. And this also is a demonstration, in fact, of the possibility that architecture could appear in different kinds of clothing or in various forms of appearance, various forms of manifestation. I think more after that there were also other kinds of conversations about the relationship between architecture and fashion, in the sense that things appear and for a certain duration, for a certain period of time. 

I think some of the things that have been happening more recently, though, are very interesting, especially because of the fact that certain fashion houses have become quite fascinated with the relationship to architecture. I think this is interesting in the sense that they’re all working very closely with materials, with the question of the skin of the building, the question of the surface of the building, the distinctions between day and night. So in a sense, the ephemeral qualities of architecture begin to also replicate, to some degree, many of the qualities of fashion. I could go on with this.

ARQ: Do you think it would be beneficial for architecture to have more of fashion’s speed and less deliberation?

Mohsen: I think architecture would benefit from learning from some of the practices of fashion designers. One of the things that I think is particularly interesting, and I think a lot of architects have learned from, is the concept of multiple samples and the way in which in fashion, as you said, you have this immediacy to the material. You can actually try something, and the relationship between the idea and its final outcome is very immediate. You can not only look at things and see things but you can touch them, so the connection’s tactility is much more immediate. I think a number of the architects who are working with fashion brands are also experimenting with, for example, scale mockups of parts of the building, precisely because in those buildings the question of their appearance has been as important as their performance, as their functionality, so they really overlap the idea of the performance of the building in many ways. You can actually talk about the way in which the building performs in the sense that it’s perceived. The relationship between the building and its audience is something that they are conscious of, so clearly it’s impossible for architecture to ever have the speed of fashion, but I think it can certainly learn from some of its practices.

At the same time, this question of duration that you’re talking about is also a problem in the sense that in fashion, when things come and go with the seasons, you can try something new. With a building it’s very difficult to try and do a revision or try the building again once it’s up. This is why you also have this dilemma between something that has an immediacy and a presence in the sense of fashion, but at the same time it has a certain sense of lastingness in the sense of a classic. I think sometimes fashion brands actually don’t want architecture that appears to be fashionable in the sense of only of that moment, because if a building that has taken a lot of time to build and has cost a lot goes out of fashion, then you’re in trouble.

ARQ: How does fashion play into the education of an architect?

Mohsen: Well, I think that it does by analogy, in the sense that there is the concept of things that are of the moment in fashion within architecture itself. I think architecture students are very much aware—or even if they’re not sometimes explicitly aware—they become part of that process. There are certain things that are thought to be of interest or to be of relevance, and they have to do with certain matters of taste, certain matters of the sensibilities of the moments that, for example, tend to attract larger groups of people. And this can be reflected in very pragmatic ways by the architects that people like. When I was a student in the ’70s, for many of us at that time, an architect called Paolo Soleri was very well known. He was probably one of the most appreciated architects because he had a visionary project, a kind of utopian project, Arcosanti, in Arizona.

Today, I’m not sure that any, if very few, architecture students would even know who Paolo Soleri is, which is a pity. But the sensibility now has moved to other things and other places. For example, we were talking about Japanese architecture and fashion, but the whole certain sort of lightness of touch that is exemplified by the works of people like SANAA, or for us, Junya Ishigami, an architect that has been here at the GSD, is very much of the present, not in the sense of just being fashionable, but in the true sense of being of the present.

I think also that a large group of architecture students are very conscious of the relationship literally to fashion. I think that also has to do with awareness of the body and the way in which the body and clothing through the phenomenon of fashion actually also becomes part and parcel of the way in which they construct certain particular identities or what one’s personal sensibilities are. Invariably there is a relationship between what you wear and the kind of interiors that you appreciate, the kinds of coloration, materials, fabrics, tonalities, things like this. I think as far as today, we see a much greater interest in color and the way in which both color and fabrics are thought about. For us here at the GSD, this is also specifically manifested through a much deeper understanding and focus on interiors, and with that also comes a greater connection to design, and by that I mean industrial design and furniture design.

ARQ: When you get dressed in the morning, you’re designing your persona every day in what you choose to wear. Architects, because they are by nature designers, not only design their own persona and demeanor, but they design their buildings, too.

Mohsen: Sure, and I think the extension to one’s immediate environment in terms of your own space—it’s a way of saying things are being designed from inside out, from wearing the clothing but extending that to the interior. The interior presents a kind of new way of looking at this relationship that we haven’t spent that much time on previously, because the emphasis has been so much on the outside and the idea of making new things and so on.

ARQ: Can you tell us about your personal style?

Mohsen: Ah.

ARQ: In another interview you said calculated casual.

Mohsen: Calculated casual, yes. We’re in a lot of meetings which are relatively formal, and so what you have to really evaluate is the degree to which you can avoid wearing more sorts of formal clothing. I probably use a lot of scarves, like many other people, and sometimes that becomes a little bit of your safety net in terms of how you introduce a certain color or a certain design or geometry or combination of fabric to just give a little bit of a lift to what might be a more neutral background.